Brown Girl, Brownstones – Paule Marshall (1959)

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“Unlike Chauncey Street, Fulton Street on this summer Saturday night was a swirling spectrum of neon signs, movie marquees, bright-lit store windows and sweeping yellow streamers of light from the cars…”

“Brown Girl, Brownstones” is a title that has been on my shelf of Viragoes for years (and that’s not hyperbole there), and as part of this month’s African-American History Month celebration, I picked it up. (I’d also just finished a collection of short stories by Marshall last week and I’d loved that read.)

Paule Marshall.

Paule Marshall.

And this read was the same level of literary excellence that I’d been hoping for after that short story collection. Marshall continues with her high level of wordsmithing here in this bildungsroman of a young immigrant child whose family are first-generation arrivals from Barbados living in early 20th century NYC. Historically speaking, after having dealt (and lived) with years of servitude, there was a wave of Barbadians (or Bajans as they’re called in this novel) who immigrated to New York hoping for a better life. New York was, at that times, called the “City of the Almighty Dollar” among this group, and all who arrived there came with dreams of big money and big success. They were literate, ambitious, and business-minded, and considered themselves as separate from the African-American population for the most part. They were Bajans.

So – to the story itself. As mentioned, it’s a coming of age novel set in Brooklyn in this immigrant neighborhood. The protagonist is Selina Boyce, a girl of twelve when the novel begins and whose parents are complete opposites of each other. The father is a dream-large layabout who talks big without following through on the action whilst her mother (always referred to as “the” mother to emphasize the distance between them) is a reality-based ambitious hard worker who has to provide the money for the bread and butter and the board for the family. Selina grudgingly admires her mother, but her father she views as “Christ-like” as the mother points out in one paragraph. Selina admires her father enough to side with him in the many family arguments that arise, and so she often defends her father’s ways in opposition of her mother who is faced with paying for the daily bread and board.

Over the years, Selina is smart in school and grows up with dreams of being a dancer. She also falls in love with a man who is older and who is, incidentally, very like her father in that he has half-baked dreams of being a successful artist but doesn’t have the wherewithal to make that actually happen. So, young Selina is torn in terms of who she wants to be: should she model herself after her father and his pie-in-the-sky ways, or after her mother who is more down-to-earth and realistic?

It’s this dichotomy which runs its thread through this novel. Selina can see that her father is not going to achieve much, but still – she admires his dreams of freedom and success and strongly identifies with him. Her mother, on the other hand — Selina can’t ignore her skills and her own dreams of being a successful independent business owner. And so Selina has to learn to decide her own future – does she have to choose one parent over another or is there another way?

This was written entirely in dialect which made it a slow read at first, but once I got the hang of it, I could hear it in my head and really enjoyed the novel. Marshall is a superb writer, and this was a good read for Black History Month.

(Part of JOMP’s Black History Month recognition.)

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